Penguins’ defense, goaltending both show serious promise

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. Penguins-Sabres stream coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Fair or not, when you think of the Pittsburgh Penguins, you don’t really think of defense. Even when the Penguins are enjoying some success.

With Evgeni Malkin out for some time, a seemingly (relatively) easy Penguins schedule could be tougher than it looks. That crucial absence might help the Penguins’ underrated mix of defense and goaltending stand out a bit, even starting with a game against the spiraling Sabres.

Crosby, mix of usual and unusual suspects drive Penguins’ defense

For some time, Sidney Crosby has been gathering some stealth Selke hype. Ultimately, you can chalk that up to a mixture of factors. At times, there’s the drive to honor a star like Crosby, even if he’s slipping out of regular Hart Trophy conversations. People also tend to respect the two-way play of an “elder statesman” more than younger players.

Last season, Crosby dropped off a bit defensively. It wouldn’t be surprising if injuries and other disruptions factored into that. But in 2020-21, Crosby likely deserves Selke consideration, unless you’re a true stickler for such candidates spending time on the penalty kill.*

Crosby looks great by plenty of metrics, including Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts.

Sidney Crosby 2020-21 RAPM chart Penguins defense goaltending
via Evolving Hockey

* – The logic is pretty simple. Why drain Crosby’s energy on the PK when you need his even-strength play and offense in general?

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-SABRES BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Crosby’s linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust check out in those areas, too.

They’re not alone, either — at least defensively. If you’ve spent time absorbing the wisdom of “fancy stats” folks during the past year or two, you may be aware that Zach Aston-Reese has developed quite the reputation as a true all-defense hidden gem.

So, between Crosby’s line, “ZAR,” and even Teddy Blueger, there have been certain “usual suspects” behind the Penguins’ sneaky-good defense. But there have also been some positive surprises.

When the Penguins signed Cody Ceci, people snickered. It felt like the Penguins didn’t learn their lessons from the disastrous days of Jack Johnson. Yet, while it’s early, it seems like Ceci might be the latest defenseman who’s flourished with the Penguins. PHT’s own Adam Gretz sang Ceci’s praises.

[Are the Penguins contenders or pretenders?]

Maybe it’s a matter of realizing that Ceci’s better off lower in the lineup. At times, he averaged as much as 23 minutes per night with the Senators, and even the savvier Maple Leafs trotted him out for 20:32 per night. With the Penguins, Ceci’s on the ice for a more reasonable 18:13 per game.

Is an easier workload the explanation? Could it be a streamlined system? Either way, it’s another reclamation project for the Penguins.

As you can see in greater detail in this recent Athletic article from Jesse Marshall (sub required), the Penguins’ system aims to do what many NHL defenses do. Ideally, you limit chances from the high-priced real estate areas of the ice. Keep the high-danger chances under control, even if it means getting peppered a bit from the point.

Penguins’ goalie duo improving as season goes along

Early on during the 2020-21 NHL season, people were lambasting the Penguins’ goaltending. If it weren’t for Matt Murray‘s own bad start in Ottawa, the grumbling would have been even louder about Tristan Jarry.

And you can bet that talk about Marc-Andre Fleury wouldn’t slow down either.

As the Penguins’ defense has gotten its bearings, the Penguins’ goalies have been putting up better and better numbers.

You don’t need to look too hard to see the results for Casey DeSmith. DeSmith sports a strong .919 save percentage in 11 games so far in 2020-21.

If you look at Tristan Jarry, you might shrug your shoulders at his .909 save percentage over 22 games. The best sign for the Penguins, though, is that Jarry’s rapidly improving.

January: 2-3-1, .859 save percentage
February: 5-3-0, .915 save percentage
March: 5-2-1, .930 save percentage

Promising stuff. If the Penguins can maintain this stinginess whenever Malkin can (hopefully) return, than they could be an interesting threat.

Now, there will be lapses. Jarry and DeSmith will likely hit a lull or two. But the bigger picture indicates that the Penguins could be viable, even if they might not always look pretty — including possibly against the lowly Sabres.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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